Martin Short turned 70 during the pandemic, and if it hadn’t been for the worldwide lockdown he’d probably still be on the road somewhere, doing his two-man vaudeville show with his old friend Steve Martin. It is, he recalls with a lot of affection and no small amount of wonder, nearly 50 years since he began a career in entertainment, and that journey has brought a lot of admirers, primarily for his work in musical theater and comedy.
On the quiet, however, Short is a damn fine dramatic actor, and his brief but indelible guest role in the hit Apple TV+ series The Morning Show recently brought him his 12th Emmy nomination since 1983. Short plays Dick Lundy, charismatic friend of Steve Carell’s Mitch Kessler, and, like Mitch, alleged to be a serial abuser of women. Dick Lundy sees Mitch as a kindred spirit, but Mitch refuses to see anything of himself in Dick, a beautiful example of the way the show subtly investigates power, manipulation and responsibility in the post-#MeToo era.
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From his home in Los Angeles, Short talked to Deadline about playing creeps, entertaining pets and how to be the perfect chat show guest.
DEADLINE: The Emmy people seem to like you very much. How do you feel about the warmth they’ve shown to you over the years?
MARTIN SHORT: Oh, I hate the warmth. [Laughs] No, of course I love the warmth. I don’t analyze why the warmth, that’s for other people. But it’s lovely.
DEADLINE: You’re mostly known for music and comedy—and here you are playing a very dark, dramatic role. How did it come to you?
SHORT: Well, it came to me by the producers reaching out and asking me to do it. I don’t know why they wanted me, necessarily, but I was immediately interested. I’m very fascinated by conversation and discussion—I’m very Canadian that way. Canadians and [people from] the UK, even more than people from the United States, love to get into it at a dinner party. Now, we live in a world where politics is often not discussed for fear of causing disruption, but I love all those discussions, and, certainly, what I loved about this character was that Dick is unrepentant for what he’s done. He thinks he’s a complete and utter victim, and has no doubt made a public statement about his regret for [his treatment of] certain women in his life—but, privately, you know he hasn’t moved an inch. And so when you think about those parameters, a character like that becomes very [attractive]… when I was in Second City in Toronto doing improv, that would be plenty to go on and improvise a character. You can get into the skin of a creep.
DEADLINE: Was anything in that scene at all improvised?
SHORT: No. It was very well written. I mean, if you improvised a line, or changed a line, and that made it better, I’m sure that they’d say, “Well, let’s go with that.” No one was being proprietary about their words, but that was a strong script going in.
DEADLINE: How do you get into the skin of a creep? Is he purely a creation of your mind, or have you encountered people like Dick Lundy in your life?
SHORT: Well, there’s kind of a general approach that people use to defend the indefensible, and you see it in Washington today. There was also a character years ago that I did on Saturday Night Live called Nathan Thurm, and the idea was that he was a defensive lawyer who would just defend what could not be defended. He would deny and defend, and then, when cornered, he would attack the attacker. I mean, that’s a type of person that we certainly know. Although maybe you wouldn’t have them as close friends because you wouldn’t want a friend like that.
DEADLINE: Was Dick Lundy always a film director in the script?
DEADLINE: Have you ever seen that kind of behavior in Hollywood?
SHORT: No, I don’t think it’s restricted to Hollywood. As I said, it can be also inclusive with politics, big business, corporate business. Some people are attacked on their behavior and their instinct is to listen and maybe grow. Other people, their instinct is to attack back, and to not learn from their travails but in fact become victims of it, because they’re incapable of actually acknowledging that they did something wrong. It wasn’t you that flirted with someone underage, they flirted with you, and what choice did you have? You are the victim, you were the innocent. It’s almost like the fear of acknowledging that maybe you’re the culprit is too overwhelming for your mind, if you’re that type of person.
DEADLINE: How long did you have to work on that first big scene with Steve Carell?
SHORT: I don’t remember, but I know we didn’t have just one shot at it, y’know? And the thing about The Morning Show, as you can see, not just from that scene, but from endless scenes, is that they have a brilliant team of writers and editors and directors and actors, and I’m sure that a less talented editor could have made that scene much less impressive. He would have had options to do that. Also, Steve is—again—an alumni of Second City Chicago. So I think our intention was to make this conversation as natural as you could make it sound.
DEADLINE: There’s an extra layer to it because you’re both very likable people in real life, and this is not the kind of conversation we want these two actors to be having. Did you feel that energy?
SHORT: Well, you are juggling all those balls. Obviously, you’re mostly trying to remember your lines, because it’s a long scene, but you’re also trying to create something real enough so that people will believe that this could actually be happening in real time. And, whether you are known as a comedian or not, people understand complicated characters who are flawed, and they’re sometimes the greatest characters to play. You don’t have to be a villain to play Macbeth, but you can understand why someone could be pushed to the point.
DEADLINE: The Morning Show came out of the gate very quickly after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke. What do you think it brought to the surface, and what kind of conversations do you think it is sparking?
SHORT: I thought its subtlety was kind of brilliant, in the way it presented Steve’s character from his perspective—he felt he was duped. And we, the audience, having seen that scene where he has sex with a girl in Las Vegas in that hotel room, we know how wrong he is, but he doesn’t see it. And so his victimhood is sincere, and that’s what made it powerful. Again, if Steve had played it in a way that he was just saying, “I’m a victim, but I didn’t do anything wrong,” but we know that he doesn’t believe that, then I think that would have been the wrong approach. Steve played those last scenes in that series as if to say, “I am the victim, not the young lady.” And that is one of the ongoing issues of the #MeToo movement: “I’m a victim. No, I’m the victim.” Forgetting the actual victim.
DEADLINE: Are you OK with your conscience when you look back at your career? Have you ever found yourself questioning whether you might have seen something that you should have spoken up about?
SHORT: I can honestly say no. Y’know, here’s the thing, in my career it’s been so varied. It’s not just been in one medium, it’s been on all three mediums [film, TV and theatre], and that allows you to be a little more selective, because someone wants you somewhere. And, secondly, in my life, I look at my friends, and they’re just high moral people. People would say to me, when my kids were little, “How do you raise kids in Hollywood?” And I’d say, “I’m not. I’m raising them in a section of Los Angeles, and my friends are all great parents and their main priority are their children, their education.” And that’s who you surround with. Yes, there’s horrible stuff happening 20 miles away, in some club somewhere, but you’re not at that club. And you don’t even know the people who go to that club or own the club. I think you tend to surround yourself with people that are, hopefully, of your own moral standard. So therefore—but long windedly—what I’m saying is that therefore I don’t know a lot of people that would do the things that would make me go, “[Gasps] Oh, I mustn’t speak about that!”
DEADLINE: Why do you think it happens?
SHORT: Well, I think that when you become massively successful, then everyone is terrified to say no to you. And, again, if you have questionable moral integrity, those standards can be adjusted to whatever you want, and no one’s going to say no, because they don’t say no to you. And I think that was Dick Lundy’s position for a long time. By the way, I think that we have to assume, to make it a more interesting scenario, that Dick Lundy is wildly talented. He’s not a hack director who got caught, and so it makes it a far more interesting story.
DEADLINE: Was Dick Lundy’s song-and-dance routine always in the script, or was that something that you brought into it?
SHORT: No. [Laughs] I know what you mean, though! [When I read the script] I was kind of thinking, “Huh? I thought he was a director? Well, I guess he was a song-and-dance director…” But look at Gene Kelly. Look at Herb Ross. Some of the great directors were brilliant entertainers. At one time they were singing and dancing for their suppers. So that was kind of the idea.
DEADLINE: Is Dick Lundy ever going to come back in any way, shape or form?
SHORT: I don’t know. I have a feeling that’s the last we’ve seen of young Mr. Lundy. [Laughs] I don’t see him coming back as the lovable neighbor of the series.
DEADLINE: That’s a shame, because there are lots of little hints about his backstory—that people are starting to reinterpret his work in light of the scandal.
SHORT: Oh, of course. But that’s what people have always done—when they re-look at [Woody Allen’s film] Manhattan, they go, “Aha!”
DEADLINE: How is the pandemic affecting you? Didn’t it scupper your recent tour?
SHORT: We were [on our way to] the UK. We had just finished a show in Dublin that night. It was, like, 1:30 in the morning, and President Trump was on TV saying, “Everyone’s got to leave in the next 24 hours.” Meaning Europe. He forgot to include “…unless you’re in the UK, or Ireland, or you’re an American citizen”. So, we left the next day and didn’t finish the tour. We were supposed to go to Belfast the next night, and then London. We were supposed to be at Royal Albert Hall in March, but we’re coming back next September.
DEADLINE: How will that affect the tour? Will you just put the set in mothballs and come back to it in a year? Obviously, this is unchartered territory, but how are you going to deal with that?
SHORT: Well, you just do what you’re suddenly presented with. My tendency is, I’m not a depressive personality, so I’m more glass half full. I have things organized. I create projects. I mean, it is startling. I feel like it’s a combination of being under house arrest and retired at the same time. It’s kind of a double whammy.
DEADLINE: So how have you been keeping yourself busy? What can you do as a performer?
SHORT: You can perform for your pets. [Laughs] Y’know, there’s nothing you can do. Yes, I’ve done the Jimmy Fallon show, the Seth Meyers show, and Conan O’Brien’s show. But other than that, no. I live in the Pacific Palisades section of Los Angeles, and I might travel to my daughter’s house, which is another section of LA, for a few days. And then I would go to another kid’s house and see my new grandson. And then I’ll head home for three days. And then I might have social drinks with friends in my backyard. And that’s about what it is. I mean, this isn’t that complicated … In the United States it’s fascinating that it became a complicated issue. Y’know, if you were in an airplane and the pilot said, “We’ve lost contact with ground control, so we’ll fly it manually,” the passengers wouldn’t say, “No, no, no, you don’t fly it, pilot. We’ll let the Governor of Idaho fly it.” It just wouldn’t happen. But for some reason, in the United States, they’re more hesitant to trust what medical people are saying. And hence there’s sections in this country this plague ravages, and it continues. So hopefully people will be smart, listen to their doctors and respond accordingly.
DEADLINE: What are your thoughts on mask deniers?
SHORT: More than anything in my life, I’m totally confused by that. I still am not understanding it, I don’t know any mask deniers, and the best way to get to understand someone like that is to get inside their head and really find out why they don’t believe their doctors all of a sudden.
DEADLINE: Do you know what you’re doing next?
DEADLINE: Presumably that will be a socially distanced project? How will that work?
SHORT: Y’know, no one has totally explained how it will be done, in that respect. Do you test everyone and then lock them in a container until you’re ready to shoot? I don’t know quite how it’s done, but I know that people are going back to work.
DEADLINE: What can you say about that project?
SHORT: It’s created by Steve Martin, it’s executive produced by Dan Fogelman, and John Hoffman is the head writer. And it’s a 10 episode pickup, no pilot, for Hulu.
Three people live in a grand building in New York and they see each other in the elevator occasionally, but they don’t really speak. And, then you see them going to their individual apartments and quickly turning on true-crime shows. The three are obsessed. And then there is a murder in the building and the three obsessives kind of unite to solve it. But because Steve’s my age, we decide that we will only solve murders that happen in the building.
DEADLINE: What keeps you going as a comedian? Is it that you constantly find things funny, or are you always looking for new things to amuse you?
SHORT: Well, I certainly see satire, wherever I go, in the sense that I can look at a press conference of a politician and see the humor in it, as opposed to being stunned by the content. [Pause] I don’t know. Y’know, I turned 70 in March, in isolation. That was lovely. But I’ve been doing this since I was 22, and I honestly have to tell you, I don’t feel a difference when I prepare for something new. I mean, even doing Jimmy Fallon’s show, or Conan’s show, or Seth’s show, I still prepare as if this will make or break my career. It’s just a natural way of doing things, and I think that I get personal satisfaction out of a combination of the work you put into something and the accomplishment you get out of it. So in other words, if you make a movie and the director is an idiot, you try to weasel as many extra takes as you can. And then you go home and say to yourself “Well, I know the director is going to pick the wrong one, I know the film’s not going to work, but I did everything I could do.” Well, congratulations—toast yourself, y’know? And so I find that still challenging. For me to go on, let’s say, a chat show, and not prepare, and then not do very well, would make me feel bummed out for a day or two. I’m still intrigued by every new project. You enter it saying, “I wonder if I can make this work…” I guess, if you love tennis and you’re 22 and you play competitively, I bet you’ll still play a similar way when you’re 70.
DEADLINE: Since the ’80s you’ve become the quintessential late-night guest. Is that part of your remit, so to speak? To liven up that airspace on a TV show?
SHORT: Y’know, it seems like there’s this overall agenda, but there really isn’t. I guess a gimmick is to be your most charming, like you’re at a dinner party, but as opposed to a dinner party, where you might have 40 minutes to rev into a great story you tell the table, you have to get it done in 10. When I started doing talk shows, I was successful at them. So I said to myself, “Oh, that’s one thing you can do, so let’s book more of those.” But, had I found myself stiff and frozen and intimidated by the process I wouldn’t have done any more. By the way, when you would do Dave Letterman—or Johnny Carson, or any of these shows—and it went well, you really had a great dinner afterwards. Because you felt happy, y’know? It’s just one of life’s accomplishments.
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